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Emery Lehman Bridges The Gap Between Skating And Structural Engineering

By David Seigerman | March 23, 2021, 4:58 p.m. (ET)

As far as life experiences go, Emery Lehman never saw this one coming. 

And as soon as it registered what had happened — he’d been dropped to the ice, laid out clean by the first body check thrown his way in years — Lehman remembered two things. First, that hitting was allowed in collegiate club hockey. 

Second … he really liked hitting.

“My first game back, I got completely leveled. Some guy hit me, and my tailbone hurt me for a month,” said Lehman, who hadn’t encountered hitting — hockey-style — since his days as an all-conference defenseman back at Oak Park and River Forest High School in suburban Chicago. “I had totally forgot we could do it. Legally.”

Checking wasn’t allowed in the beer league games he’d played in over the years, before joining the club hockey team at Marquette University, which was about to move up to Division II in the American Collegiate Hockey Association, the governing body for nearly 500 non-NCAA hockey programs. 

And it certainly doesn’t exist in speedskating, the primary focus of Lehman’s on-ice efforts for the last decade or so. In a world where merely impeding another skater is a yellow card-worthy infringement, intentional body contact is unthinkable. 

Once he got the taste of it again, though … 

“I went around trying to lay down monster hits. Probably a lot of pent-up aggression for not having played for so long,” said Lehman. “My teammates warned me, ‘Dude, you gotta watch out. You’re going to hurt yourself.’ Then the very last game of the season, I tried to crush this guy who probably had 125 pounds on me. He put me on the ground.” 

Lehman left the rink with a sore ankle but no regrets. He had done what he set out to do — make the most out of his college experience.

“I really loved playing hockey. I probably didn’t get competitive enough with it at a young age,” said Lehman, who also projected as a promising lacrosse prospect while at OPRF. “I played travel hockey, but when I got to high school, I was more competitive in speedskating.” 

That’s a humble understatement. When Lehman was a 17-year-old high school senior, he won the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Speedskating in the 10,000-meter and finished second in the 5,000. He competed in both events in the Olympic Winter Games Sochi 2014, where he was the youngest male athlete in Team USA’s contingent of 230 Olympians.

Lehman’s path through the seven years since Sochi has been intentionally unconventional, as he sought to strike a balance between school and skating. From the outside, it would appear that Lehman has made it work. He qualified for the 2018 Games in PyeongChang, where he competed in the 5,000 and team pursuit. And, in the spring of 2020, he graduated cum laude from Marquette with a degree in civil engineering. Along the way, he overcame obstacles (including a prolonged bout of mononucleosis) and maximized opportunities (playing competitive hockey and lacrosse at college), which was the plan. 

“Sochi definitely seems like a lifetime ago,” said Lehman. “I’ve been through life a little bit more, had different life experiences, have a different perspective.”

Still, as he prepares for another Olympic qualifying season, Lehman remains unsure whether his double-barrel approach was the right one.

“There are two sides to it,” said Lehman. “On one side, I got to go to college, live in Milwaukee, be close to friends and family, and still experience some international competition. On the other side, my progression really slowed down during that time. Solely from an athletic standpoint, it was not good. If you look at it from the standpoint of someone who wanted to live a kind of normal life, it was good, and I’m really appreciative of the smaller success that I’ve had and the smaller improvements I’ve made. But … it’s a good question for when I’m done skating, whether it was a good decision or a bad one for me. I won’t know until I’m truly done.”

Despite his declared uncertainty, Lehman remains devoted to the dual life of a hyphenate. He is a committed student-athlete living in Salt Lake City, training full-time for a spot in his third Olympic Games and taking a remote class toward his master’s degree in structural engineering from Johns Hopkins. Appropriately for a guy who lives straddling two worlds, it’s a class in bridge design and evaluation, in which every week he is assigned a 200-page unit examining the different design considerations that factor into building a bridge from scratch.

Pretty much exactly what you’d expect from a guy who happily followed up an Olympic Games with a summer internship working in renewal and forensics. Renewal, in that case, involved a project to replace escalators with elevators in the old Marshall Field’s Building in Chicago; forensics meant investigating the causes of building collapses. Compelling and consequential work.

“Someone asked me recently what I do outside of school and skating,” said Lehman, whose older brother is a structural engineer. “The answer is school and skating.”

It all adds up. All this time, Lehman’s simultaneous pursuits of a skating career and that so-called “normal life” haven’t been oppositional forces. Rather, they have reinforced each other, working together to build what anyone would tell you — whether you’re an engineer, an Olympian, or a hockey player about to get checked — is the key to success: a strong foundation.

David Seigerman

David Seigerman is a veteran sportswriter, producer, author and the producer/writer/host of the new sports podcast, Out Of Left Field. He is a freelance contributor to USSpeedskating.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.
 

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Emery Lehman